We were relieved to reach Olkhon Island after a terrifying drive: fast cars, bad roads, vodka and Russian fatalism are an unpleasant and potentially devastating cocktail that make us glad we’ve largely avoided the roads in our month in the country. We’d hoped that the end of the metalled road, a good 50 miles from Olkhon, would at least force our driver to slow down, but it didn’t seem to. Instead the only effect of the rapidly deteriorating surface was that we were thrown around the minibus with increasing frequency and violence. But we somehow made it without disaster and were then able to settle into five restful and hugely enjoyable days on the island.
Although we’d read the usual descriptions of the lake and island: that Baikal, the “pearl of Siberia” is the deepest fresh water lake in the world, containing over a fifth of the planet’s unfrozen drinking water, and that Olkhon is the largest island on the lake, we still had no real idea what to expect in terms of views or weather. All we knew was that the guesthouse where we were headed had established a reputation as Siberia’s prime backpacker hangout and seemingly every tourist we’d met in Russia had been there or was planning to visit.
The landscape we found was hauntingly beautiful: high slopes of yellowing firs giving way to wide open expanses sparsely covered by short, tan coloured grasses that run down to the lake which shimmers with a bright Van Gogh blue. The crumpled white sandstone slopes opposite shone in the light, the colour standing out all the more against the blue of the lake, and further away, steeper, higher, darker cliffs rose out of the lake to reach snow capped peaks.
Other than for a couple of hours on our first afternoon – when we were caught unexpectedly in a brief hail storm - the skies were cloudless and the light so crisp and clear that the views seemed endless and the whole landscape appeared to glow in the warm light.
For the first couple of days a strong cold wind that cut you in two whipped off the lake, and even in our warmest clothes we were chilly. By the third day however the wind had dropped and, although the air itself never seemed to warm up, it was blissfully warm in the sun.
We spent three days walking: through woods, along the shore and across the open landscape. Each day we were amazed by the beauty and emptiness of the landscape and – if it doesn’t sound too clichéd – felt refreshed and restored by the views and the solitude. Our other full day we took a tour to the north of the island, driving over bumpy almost non-existent dirt tracks (photo below), for incredible views out over the widest section of the lake where the water stretched uninterrupted to the horizon and it was hard to believe we weren’t looking out at the sea.
Our guesthouse was on the edge of a town that looked like it should have been in the Wild West, with rickety wooden buildings spread out along a wide dusty main road, where a few cows did their best to graze. Our room was warm and cosy though, and the guesthouse served nice, hearty (if rather stodgy food), so we could happily have stayed longer.
Yet in Olkhon, as elsewhere in Russia, the beauty was in places marred by environmental and social problems. Litter was scattered indiscriminately across the landscape, almost all of it recyclable yet here not even buried, so at times we had to pick our way through plastic bags, tin cans and broken vodka bottles. Alcoholism too seemed as rife as on the mainland, with plenty of drunks staggering around or attempting to drive, and others queuing up outside shops in the early morning for more of the “little water.” And the poverty here too was just as harrowing as we’ve seen elsewhere, with many of the houses little more than hovels, and with no running water or paved roads on the island.
So we will leave Russia with very mixed emotions. We’re so glad to have come, and have been fascinated by the country, and genuinely touched by the individual acts of warmth and hospitality we’ve received, as well as being pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of many of the people we’ve spoken to. The natural beauty of Siberia and Baikal and the constructed grandeur of St Petersburg and parts of Moscow have been dazzling and the art collections mesmerising. Yet we leave also profoundly depressed by the extreme poverty that leaves so many without decent housing, roads, electricity or running water, so that even in the big cities we frequently saw people filling buckets at standpipes. And this in a country with such obvious wealth, and an apparently growing gulf between the “haves” with their designed clothes and new 4X4s and the “have-nots.”
It makes us wonder how can Russia be considered one of the world’s most developed countries when so many of its citizens live in dire conditions, when alcoholism is so rife, the basic functions of civic society seem lacking and even some of the most educated Russians we’ve met are openly and abhorrently racist.